TIME THAT SUNLIGHT TAKES TO REACH US
or HOW CAN WE WRITE POETRY IN THE 21st CENTURY?
On January 1st, 2002, I sent the piece below – adapted from
a correspondence at the end of last year – out via e-mail and snailmail, inviting responses before the end of the month.
I really do think that we can’t write the same things as people have
before us, because the way we ‘see’ things, what we ‘feel’ about things,
has changed. Just because something is ‘genuine’ or ‘real’ or even utterly
heartfelt doesn’t mean it makes a good poem. That’s a beginner’s argument
– and you know it! Poetry isn’t about biography or experience, it’s
about language and – if you want – some notion of ‘truth’. But truth
isn’t the same as experience or narrative, story or epiphany.
I’ve been reading post-Wittgenstein philosophy/theology this week [Richard
Holloway & Don Cupitt] and they point
out that we [humans] are always slow to change, we seem to be conservative
by nature. We wanted the earth to stay at the centre of the universe,
just as earlier we wanted the earth to be flat, and we’re the same with
language and psychology/philosophy: we now know we don’t think in narrative
and neat order, we now have ideas of rhizomes, fragments and cut-ups
– chains of interlinked narratives – as a metaphor for the way we live.
We know we invent the world through our language,
that language doesn’t just equal an object, and that each of
us is alone in our little created world. Previously photography and
then film changed the arts, now science is having an effect.
So it’s very difficult to make sunlight or the blur
of a bird’s wing a metaphor in today’s poetry [or many other images],
because we now understand these ideas in different ways. We know
about chaos theory, we know about fractals, light/heat, the ozone layer;
the time that sunlight takes to reach us, and the red/blue shifts involved.
We can seek solace in old-fashioned and traditional ways of writing,
but I don’t believe it can work anymore. We need complex, new ways of
writing because we know this is a complex, changing world. We know,
for instance, we are media led. We know that in England we are prone to romanticising the
countryside, desiring a picturesque landscape with cows and green fields.
Life isn’t like that though, it’s about food chains, nature ‘red in
tooth and claw’ and urban development; transience, change, secularisation…
I seriously think we may be at a point in time where some themes can’t
be dealt with in poetry – or not in an obvious way. If the content/subject
is what’s important then there are always clearer ways to get to more
people than poetry.
Click here to read the responses...